January Short Story Competition Winner

Behind the Lace

by Cynthia Allen

Phyllida Fanshawe had few interests.  From time to time she would visit the local museum. It consisted of two poorly decorated rooms above the village store, where she would stroll past the exhibits for an hour or two, making caustic observations about the other visitors to whichever unfortunate soul had accompanied her that day.  Phyllida, a widow for some twenty years, had not been over-fond of her husband. Nevertheless, she was invariably dressed head to toe in densest black, an absence of colour so intense that it reflected no light, simply consuming it. Phyllida was a perambulating singularity. Her only deference to colour was the mellow pink hue of her pearls: a gift, she said, from a grateful resident.  For Phyllida had once been the borough’s Mayoress, and took every opportunity to remind the village folk of that fact.

On those occasions when she had been unable to conscript a neighbour to join her on her museum visits and the pursuit of curmudgeonly disapproval, her customary victim would be the vicar’s wife, the diffident Sylvia Potter, a frail lady of bird-like movements and querulous utterances.  Sylvia spent two mornings each week manning the museum, selling tickets, dusting the exhibits and tending to the aged, fading pot plants that had been introduced in an attempt to brighten the gloomy expanse of under-lit displays of antiquity.  To the poor lady’s dismay, an unaccompanied Phyllida would unerringly arrive during one of ‘Sylvia’s mornings’.

“Ah, Mrs Potter,” Phyllida would announce, as if she were surprised by Sylvia’s presence. “How nice to see you, my dear. Now, what do you think about  . . . ”  She would then provide her with a series of deprecatory remarks about various members of the community, knowing that the hapless lady was too timorous  –  and far too polite  –  to contradict.

In addition to her regular pronouncements regarding her fellow villagers’ defects, Phyllida also kept herself busy making elaborately labelled jars of jam and marmalade for the annual church fête. And then there were her afternoon soirées, at which, on rare occasions, and only after mannerly but insincere requests from her guests and her own (feigned) demurrals, she had been known to play the piano, knowing but three tunes  –  an extract from Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, a sacred song by Purcell and the British National Anthem. 

Her only other interest was gossiping, vicariously sharing her neighbours’  concerns: their peccadilloes, their weaknesses, their very lives.  Phyllida Fanshawe was a snoop. 

Of course, she did not regard her ‘little narratives’ as in any way cruel or unkind. She was merely passing on information.  And was it not important that folk who were obliged to live side by side should know what breed of neighbours they had; should be made aware of their foibles, their eccentricities, their flaws and limitations?  Should they not be told that George McFee had an eye for a smartly turned ankle, evidenced by his salacious smiles in a comely lady’s direction whenever he thought himself to be unobserved?  He was, after all, the leader of the Council and should therefore know better than to covertly  –  and rather creepily, she thought  –   demonstrate  his susceptibility to the female form.  And should they not be made aware of Old Mrs Reynold’s habit of weeding her garden at night, her activities illuminated only by the light of a full moon?  It was obvious the old lady was indulging in something more unpleasant than mere gardening.  Miss Fanshawe would not explicitly state that Mrs Reynolds was a follower of the occult, but  . . .  her listeners could draw their own conclusions.

The veiled accusation that she was an enchantress was in error, however. The poor lady suffered from insomnia, and chose to while away her time on warm, moonlit nights pulling weeds in her garden.  She refused to use a torch, realising that this might, as she so eloquently put it, ‘freak out the neighbours’, and she knew that her outdoor lights would illuminate more than just her own garden, thus waking half the street.

Mr McFee was also the victim of slander. He was not, in fact, a reprobate given to ogling young ladies.  He suffered from poor vision, and his supposed leers, in which he scrunched up his face and peered out at the world like a myopic mole, were simply his attempts to recognise the person to whom he was about to wish a merry ‘Good Morning’.       

Most of Phyllida’s fellow villagers had chosen to have net curtains covering their windows. After all, the village was small, the roads narrow, and privacy was in short supply.  No-one wanted to be watched as they munched on their morning cornflakes or sipped their late night cocoa.  But net curtains were not for Phyllida. To study one’s neighbours from behind nets was difficult. They obscured the view, making close scrutiny almost impossible. So much of interest could be missed.  Phyllida preferred lace: pleasingly intricate, demonstrably expensive Brussels lace.  Lace contained holes, through which she could examine her fellow villagers, while they remained in ignorance of her presence.

And yet, La Fanshawe had her followers, for the village was of modest size, and diversions few.  Miss Fanshawe’s soirées, where she would spread scandal as liberally as she spread the jam on her home-made scones, were popular because, in the words of the vicar, the Reverend Arthur Potter, “Phyllida spares no expense at her little afternoon teas”. Sylvia Potter was invariably persuaded to provide cupcakes, Phyllida declaring that ‘my own little efforts are but poor imitations of yours, dear Mrs P.’   The meek, defenceless Mrs Potter would be too timid to say no.

Then, one fateful day the Reverend arrived, accompanied by his wife, to announce Something of Interest.  The cleric was a sturdy gentleman, dressed in russet tweed with oversized dog collar and sporting a handlebar moustache the size of two EU-approved bananas.  His hair was obviously dyed, its concentrated colour matching perfectly the darkness of Phyllida’s relentlessly black apparel. 

“I have news,” the Reverend declared in stentorian tones.

Phyllida’s head swivelled through ninety degrees. “News, Reverend Potter? What news?”

“It’s very exciting,” twittered Sylvia, in an attempt to pre-empt her husband. “You wait till you hear!”

 “We have acquired a new family in the village,” the cleric replied. “The Jepsons. They moved in on Monday.”

Phyllida glared. Monday?  Last Monday?  Almost a week ago? Why had she not been told this before?

“Tom Jepson is, I am informed, something to do with the law,” Reverend Potter continued, unaware of Phyllida’s mounting vexation. “His dear wife, Imelda Jepson   –  a delightful lady  –  is currently a housewife and home-maker, but she is, I hear, looking for something ‘a little more challenging’ to fill her time.”

“No children, then, to keep her busy?” asked Phyllida.

“Oh, yes, they have children.  Seven, I believe. And a whole menagerie of animals.”

“Oh, won’t it be fun, having a new family in the village,” interjected Sylvia with mounting excitement.

“Indeed,” said Phyllida coldly, wondering how the knowledge of their arrival could be put to good use. “And where are they living?”

“Why, in the White House, of course,” answered the Reverend gentleman. “Where else would be big enough?”

The White House was to be found at the end of the High Street.  In the village there was but one thoroughfare worthy of the name.  It stretched from the Queen’s Arms to the East to St Mungo’s Church in the West, and had been empty for the past twenty years.  The White House was a towering edifice that included eight bedrooms and four reception rooms, plus stables, and was surrounded by an unkempt garden filled with exuberant thistles, once elegant roses  –   now gone wild  –   and an  abundance of brambles that bore no fruit.  The house had not, in fact, been white for at least two decades, the paint having been steadily eroded by wind and rain and neglect. The walls were covered in deranged ivy, the gutters filled with moss.  But Tom Jepson, a single-minded, stubborn man, rose to the challenge and, with the help of a team of craftsmen from surrounding villages plus his own steady determination, restored both house and garden to their former grandeur.  The Jepsons filled their new home with children and dogs and exotic birds, and the stables with three horses and a goat.  At last the villagers had a new interest, for the Jepson family was to be a source of much pleasure and amusement. 

Mrs Jepson visited St Mungo’s on her first Sunday in the parish, making her presence felt by singing hymns loudly, impressing the vicar and the congregation by obviously knowing all the words, having barely glanced at the hymn sheet. She sang so loudly, in fact, that she was immediately enlisted in the choir, the Reverend Potter’s pride and joy.  His wife, to her great relief, soon discovered that Mrs Jepson also made delectable cupcakes, thus relieving poor Sylvia of what had become a tiresome, but so-far unavoidable, chore.

Mr Jepson, a man of simple tastes that did not include religion, called into the pub each evening, and after only three such visits had instituted a Darts Team. Each day their children, five girls and two boys, were transported in a large, overfilled, land-rover to a school in a nearby hamlet, but spent their weekends walking or riding through the town, chattering and laughing and waving happily to its residents, to the delight of them all. 

All, that is, except Miss Fanshawe.

However, Phyllida had realised that the arrival of the new family was not entirely bad news, as the Jepsons would provide a necessary requirement for a compulsive gossip like herself  –  someone fresh to supply anecdotes for her endlessly ravenous catalogue of disapproval.   For she had by now exhausted her repertoire of tales, sometimes sordid or distasteful, always trivial and inane.  It had even come to pass that her get-togethers were less well attended than before, her neighbours making excuses for their absence: mutual alibis which had become less and less believable, causing Miss Fanshawe to contemplate the future of the soirées, and her principal pastime  –  the dispersal of spite.

Initially it had looked as if Imelda Jepson might provide a suitable scandal for the Fanshawe rumour mill. Mrs Jepson had recently acquired a new responsibility  –  that of leader of the choir. It had taken the Reverend less than a week to decide that she was, as he had put it, “born for the task”. As a result of her new-found role, she had become firm friends with the curate, the Reverend Jeremy Stance, a young man blessed with a slender figure and a merry disposition.  Phyllida began to make tenuous suggestions on her shopping expeditions that the Imelda/Jeremy connexion had “more to it than meets the eye, if you know what I mean.”

Unfortunately for her, everyone in the village (except for Phyllida herself, plus the refreshingly unworldly Sylvia Potter) was aware that the curate was gay.  They had all seen The Poster on the wall of the church hall.  Jeremy had been instructing the children of the village in Roman history.  This included the practice of gladiatorial combat.  Jeremy’s illustration for this barbaric custom was a life-sized photograph of a finely honed Russell Crowe, resplendent in his gladiatorial attire.  That had been nearly three years ago.  The poster was still there. Mr McFee, no friend of Phyllida, had been delighted to be the bearer of this news, revelling in the chagrin that it had caused. 

Not to be beaten, however, Phyllida moved on to Tom Jepson.  His regular visits to the region’s one and only pub provided her with the opportunity to hint that he was “a recovering alcoholic.  So sad, especially for his wife, and those beautiful children.” Miss Carter-Jones, the village school teacher, and a strict church-goer, soon put paid to all such speculations. “Tom Jepson,” she announced, “is the kindest of gentlemen, and a wonderful father to his delightful offspring”, and promptly co-opted him onto the School Governing Board.

On the edge of despair, Phyllida decided to investigate these offspring. Their ages ranged from seven to eighteen: the prime phase, she decided, for insolence, disrespect, and possibly even vandalism. But no.  The villagers had taken the young people to their hearts.  The girls, Jane, Elizabeth, Emma, Catherine and Marianne, had been named after heroines of Jane Austen novels and were equally respectable, poised and self-possessed.  No-one would ever believe that such agreeable young ladies could be capable of anything other than flawless behaviour.  The eldest girl, Marianne, was taking a gap year before going to university, so spent two mornings a week assisting Sylvia in the museum, one evening attending church choir practice and the rest of her time working on her father’s allotment. The boys, Fitzwilliam and Wentworth Jepson (also – unfortunately –  named after Jane Austen characters) were, like their sisters, conscientious pupils, polite to their elders, and coveted as companions for the other children of the village.  So, no prospects for calumny and slander there either. 

However hard she tried, Miss Fanshawe was unable to discover any skeletons in the Jepson closet.  She had been on the point of fabricating a few salacious details, completely without foundation of any kind, when she had found out,  from Reverend Potter, that Mrs Jepson had recently been honoured to accept the post of local magistrate and that Mr Jepson was a noted lawyer, specialising in libel cases.

Phyllida Fanshawe’s soirées continue to this day, the villagers reluctant to give up such an absorbing  –  and inexpensive  –  pastime; but the gatherings are now so altered as to be almost unrecognisable.  Gossip has been replaced by literary discussion, Phyllida having instituted a weekly Book Club  –  ‘all the rage in London’, according to Sylvia Potter.   Watching BBC Newsnight Review has become a prerequisite to full enjoyment of the occasion.  To compensate for the loss of the frisson once provided by scandal and slander, Miss Fanshawe now serves tartelettes de fraises in place of cupcakes, canapés as an alternative to crustless cucumber sandwiches, and her cups of Earl Grey have been replaced by elegant flutes of champagne. 

Miss Fanshawe invariably finishes off the bubbly.  On those rare occasions when none remains, she helps herself to a large gin and tonic, or sometimes two, reasoning that they help her to sleep.  She no longer visits the museum, finding that her waspish remarks to Sylvia are thwarted by Marianne’s constant interruptions:  “Have you seen this beautiful vase, Miss Fanshawe?” or “Would you like to look at our latest acquisition, Miss Fanshawe?” or “Don’t you find Victorian watercolours simply riveting, Miss Fanshawe?”

Phyllida continues to produce jams and marmalades for the fete, but villagers have noticed that the flavour is often wanting.  Mr McFee is convinced that she regularly includes pickled onions or gherkins in the brew, and had even been known to replace sugar with salt.

She has taken to walking around the village late at night, after the Jepsons have retired.  Old Mrs Reynolds often sees her on her nocturnal jaunts.  She notices that Phyllida’s gait is frequently erratic, and when she wishes the old lady goodnight, her speech is often slurred.

Mrs Reynolds suspects that Miss Fanshawe is becoming an alcoholic, but she is far too well-bred to share her suspicions with anyone else.